The Gallery was incorporated in 1986 as the Barrie Gallery Project, a not-for-profit, charitable organization, and opened a storefront gallery in 1988 at 17c Mulcaster. In 1989, local businessman Maurice MacLaren left his collection and residence at 147 Toronto Street to the City of Barrie and the Barrie Gallery Project, giving the Gallery a permanent home. In honour of his bequest, the Gallery was named the MacLaren Art Centre in 1990. During the 1990s, under director William Moore, the MacLaren gained recognition for its innovative approach to programming. In 1997, the MacLaren attracted 100,000 visitors for Joe Fafard’s Field Project. The design by this Saskatchewan artist was planted with crops in a 50-acre site to produce the image of a horse, assisted by local farmers and 200 volunteers. Responding to the new Ontario public school curriculum, VanGo was introduced in 1997, employing regional artists to deliver in-class studio programmes across Simcoe County. In 1997, 1998 and 1999 the Gallery was awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for its exceptional private sector and community support. In 1999, the City of Barrie designated its public spaces in support of the MacLaren’s public art initiative ArtCity™. Ron Baird’s public sculpture, Spirit Catcher, was the first work accessioned into the MacLaren’s collection; it has since become a symbol for the City of Barrie. In 2003, 2005 and 2007, the MacLaren mounted its ambitious Shorelines series featuring public sculptures by Canadian and international artists installed along the ancient shore of Lake Algonquin and Barrie’s downtown.

The MacLaren moved to a new, state-of-the-art facility in 2001. The building, designed by Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Archirects, garnered significant critical acclaim, including the 2003 Ontario Architects Association Award of Excellence for Best Building (under $10 million) and the National Post Design Exchange Award of Merit. Years of success, however, were overshadowed by the failure of the MacLaren to secure stable operating support. A serious deficit resulted, leading to reduced staffing, programming and hours of operation. In 2006, the MacLaren entered into a ten-year court approved Financial Reorganization. With operating and facility support from the City of Barrie, a strong board and skilled staff under the administrative and artistic direction of Carolyn Bell Farrell, the MacLaren has since consolidated its resources, expanded its programmes and built a stable foundation for future growth.